Can Executive Function Be Improved?

​Melina Uncapher and her team are rethinking traditional research and development to find the key to every student unlocking the powerful math learner inside of them.

A former Macarthur Scholar and current Assistant Professor at UC San Francisco, Uncapher is heading up one of the most trailblazing initiatives in education today. The EF+Math Program is focused on using executive functions to dramatically improve math outcomes for students in grades 3-8, especially those who have been traditionally underserved.

The model, “Inclusive Research and Development (R&D)” combines three traditionally distinct research periods into one and relies upon a multidisciplinary team of educators and researchers.

What’s more, Uncapher is betting executive functions might hold great potential for improving student outcomes in math. Uncapher describes executive functions as “the air traffic control system of the mind” as they help direct our focus towards certain learning objectives.  

“You can imagine how important it is to be able to switch back and forth quickly and easily between solving multiplication and subtraction problems. That’s the ‘cognitive flexibility’ skill of executive function,” says Uncapher. “Also, you can imagine how important it is to ignore irrelevant details when solving word problems and focusing on the information needed to complete the task, or the ‘inhibitory control’ skill of executive function.” ​​

Executive function (EF) skills are like the air-traffic control system of the mind: they allow us to manage all the competing demands on our attention.

A Program Focused On The “Superpower” of Executive Function


For Uncapher, the EF+Math Program program has been a long time coming. “This program is over 10 years in the making! The initial idea was conceived by Jim Shelton when he was Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Dept of Education in the Obama Administration, as a way to stimulate great innovation in education,” she explains.

“The idea was to mobilize one of the things our country does best: innovation,” explains Uncapher. “And the major engine that drives great innovation in the U.S. is R&D. What does this look like for education? Great R&D could draw from the best of the science of how students learn, and turn these research-based insights into great programs and practices that support students across many different contexts of learning (e.g., large and small class sizes, urban and rural environments, heavily resourced and under-resourced schools).”

Uncapher wants the program to be deeply bottom up: “We quickly recognized that–in order to make the breakthrough gains in student achievement we were committed to–we couldn’t just focus on research and development. We needed to bring in the folks who are closest to the challenges and therefore closest to the solutions: the educators.”

A New Way To Do Research And Improve Executive Function For Children

At the heart of the effort is a new way to do applied research. “Thus was born our theory of action, which we call ‘inclusive R&D’. We know even the best current models that bridge research and practice still often use a ‘hand-off model’ that takes research insights and hands them off to developers to design and develop products or programs that are then handed off to educators to implement in highly specified ways (‘with fidelity’),” she notes.

In part, the issue is that most education research consists of three distinct periods: research, development and practice. Traditionally, each period ‘hands-off’ their results to the other.

“The hand-off model has many drawbacks,” Uncapher argues. “First, it takes a long time. Going through the process, we can lose an entire generation of K-12 students.  Research insights need to be mostly baked before handing off to developers (which can take ~3-8 years),” and, as Uncapher explains, “the developers might take 3-8 years to design and develop their products or programs, and then finally it might take 3-5 years to teach educators how to use the products or programs in the way the researchers and developers designed.”

As Uncapher notes, the years long ‘hand-off’ model also has other issues. “ The tremendous wisdom of each sector (researchers, designers/developers, educators) is lost in this ‘hand-off model’, as the sectors are not partnering with each other to co-design, develop, implement, and scale products and programs that can really serve students in learning anything they want to learn,” she says.

According to Uncapher, the ‘inclusive R&D model intends to “bring each of these sectors to the table at the same time, with equal voice, in a co-design process that can truly draw on all the expertise of educators, researchers, and designers/developers.” Uncapher hopes that “[by] bringing everyone to the co-design table, we aim to also speed up the process, producing breakthrough ideas much more quickly than in traditional models.”

Thus was born our theory of action, which we call ‘inclusive R&D’

Can Executive Function For Children Be Improved?

At the center of the  EF+Math program is a focus on executive functions.  Executive functions are commonly referenced but not so well understood by everyone. Uncapher explains, “Executive function (EF) skills are like the air-traffic control system of the mind: they allow us to manage all the competing demands on our attention, and direct our attention to what we consider important in our learning and our life. In this way, EF skills allow us to have agency over what we want to learn, and how we want to live.”

Uncapher argues that executive function is deeply important. “Specifically, EF skills include the ability to focus attention on goal-relevant information and ignore goal-irrelevant information, to hold and work with information in our mind, and to flexibly switch between rules or goals. You can imagine how important these skills would be to learning math,” she notes.

To be sure, there are critics of the EF+ Math approach. For some, the approach draws analogies to similar claims made by the brain training or “cognitive training” industry — often in the form of commercial games that claim to improve memory or problem-solving skills but don’t have research to back up their claims and fail to live up to the hype. For example, with just a few minutes a day,  brainhq promises to “improve auditory processing by 131%” and Lumosity claims to “improve memory, increase focus and feel sharper.” Scientific studies have largely debunked these claims.

By contrast, Uncapher points to evidence that executive function skills are like any other skills that can be strengthened. Part of the reason is theoretical. “It is critical to note that every single student has executive function skills. Every single brain is learning something in every second of every day. Their medial temporal lobes are constantly transforming their experiences into long-term, lasting memories,” says Uncapher.

“Because of this, it is not our responsibility to teach students how to learn, because their brains are learning and making memories every second of every day. It is, however, our responsibility to put the right information in front of those learning brains, at the right time, and in the right sequence.”

Unlike previous approaches that treated cognitive training as an isolated event, Uncapher’s theory of action respects the evidence showing that practice needs to be embedded. Similar to the idea that if you want to get better at your dunking skills, you’ll likely be more effective if you practice on a basketball court rather than a video game.   In this way, she collapses the distinction between training and practice, and thus she argues, will be far more likely to succeed in building the EF skills that matter. “The projects  we are funding are different from typical ‘brain training programs.’ Research shows executive function skills need to be developed in the contexts in which they are to be expressed, rather than being developed in isolation, as many brain training programs encourage,” Uncapher says.

“So we fund work that develops executive function skills in the environments and circumstances where they need to be expressed: while learning mathematics. We don’t fund programs that build executive function skills in isolation (e.g., while playing a ‘brain training game’ that isn’t connected to learning math),” she says.

Her team has created a primer which discusses the intersection of executive function and education on the one hand, and executive function and equity on the other. Their team has also curated independent resources that offer an overview of important topics within the field. It’s an important read for practitioners–and researchers alike.

​–Ulrich Boser

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